The Secret to a Bigger Life
Suddenly, through the windows, I overheard two guys talking just outside. One said, "Oh my God, I had the cushiest job at Warner Bros. I got paid for eight hours of work every day, and it was usually just an hour."
This guy got my attention. I opened the window a little more so I wouldn't miss the rest of the conversation, and I quietly closed the curtain.
The guy went on to say he had been a legal clerk. "I just quit today. My boss was a man named Peter Knecht."
I was amazed. Sounded perfect to me.
I went right to the telephone, dialed 411, and asked for the main number at Warner Bros.—lI still remember it, 954-6000. I called the number and asked for Peter Knecht. An assistant in his office answered, and I said to her, "I'm going to USC law school in the fall, and I'd like to meet with Mr. Knecht about the law clerk job that's open."
Knecht got on the line. "Can you be here tomorrow at 3 p.m.?" he asked.
I met with him on Friday at 3 p.m. He hired me at 3:15. And I started work at Warner Bros. the next Monday.
I didn't quite realize it at that time, but two incredible things happened that day in the summer of 1974.
First, my life had just changed forever. When I reported for work as a legal clerk that Monday, they gave me a windowless office the size of a small closet. At that moment, I had found my life's work. From that tiny office, I joined the world of show business. I never again worked at anything else.
I also realized that curiosity had saved my ass that Thursday afternoon. I've been curious as long as I can remember. As a boy, I peppered my mother and my grandmother with questions, some of which they could answer, some of which they couldn't.
By the time I was a young man, curiosity was part of the way I approached the world every day. My kind of curiosity hasn't changed much since I eavesdropped on those guys at my apartment complex. It hasn't actually changed that much since I was an antsy twelve-year-old boy.
My kind of curiosity is a little wide-eyed, and sometimes a little mischievous. Many of the best things that have happened in my life are the result of curiosity. And curiosity has occasionally gotten me in trouble.
But even when curiosity has gotten me in trouble, it has been interesting trouble.
Curiosity has never let me down. I'm never sorry I asked that next question. On the contrary, curiosity has swung wide many doors of opportunity for me. I've met amazing people, made great movies, made great friends, had some completely unexpected adventures, even fallen in love—because I'm not the least bit embarrassed to ask questions.
That first job at Warner Bros. studios in 1974 was exactly like the tiny office it came with—confining and discouraging. The assignment was simple: I was required to deliver final contract and legal documents to people with whom Warner Bros. was doing business. That's it. I was given envelopes filled with documents and the addresses where they should go, and off I went.
I was called a "legal clerk," but I was really just a glorified courier. At the time, I had an old BMW 2002—one of the boxy two-door BMW sedans that looked like it was leaning forward. Mine was a faded red-wine color, and I spent my days driving around Hollywood and Beverly Hills, delivering stacks of important papers.
I quickly identified the one really interesting thing about the job: the people to whom I was bringing the papers. These were the elite, the powerful, the glamorous of 1970s Hollywood—the writers, directors, producers, stars. There was only one problem: people like that always have assistants or secretaries, doormen or housekeepers.
If I was going to do this job, I didn't want to miss out on the only good part. I didn't want to meet housekeepers, I wanted to meet the important people. I was curious about them.
So I hit on a simple gambit. When I showed up, I would tell the intermediary—the secretary, the doorman—that I had to hand the documents directly to the person for the delivery to be "valid."
I went to ICM—the great talent agency—to deliver contracts to seventies superagent Sue Mengers, who represented Barbra Streisand and Ryan O'Neal, Candice Bergen and Cher, Burt Reynolds and Ali MacGraw. How did I meet Mengers? I told the ICM receptionist, "The only way Miss Mengers can receive this is if I hand it to her personally." She sent me in without another question.
If the person to whom the documents were addressed wasn't there, I'd simply leave and come back. The guy who had unwittingly tipped me to the job was right. I had all day, but not much work to worry about.
This is how I met Lew Wasserman, the tough-guy head of MCA Studios, and his partner, Jules Stein.
It's how I met William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist, and also Billy Friedkin, the Oscar winner who directed it.
I handed contracts to Warren Beatty at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.
I was just twenty-three years old, but I was curious. And I quickly learned that not only could I meet these people, I could also sit and talk to them.
I would hand over the documents with graciousness and deference, and since it was the seventies, they'd always say, "Come in! Have a drink! Have a cup of coffee!"
I would use these moments to get a sense of them, sometimes to get a bit of career advice. I never asked for a job. I never asked for anything, in fact.
Pretty quickly, I realized the movie business was a lot more interesting than law school. So I put it off—I never went; I would have made a terrible lawyer—and I kept that clerk job for a year, through the following summer.
You know what's curious: throughout that entire time, no one ever called my bluff. No one said, "Hey, kid, just leave the contract on the table and get out of here. You don't need to see Warren Beatty."
I met every single person to whom I delivered papers.
Just as curiosity had gotten me the job, it also transformed the job itself into something wonderful.
The men and women whose contracts I delivered changed my life. They showed me a whole style of storytelling I wasn't familiar with, and I began to think that maybe I was a storyteller at heart. They set the stage for me to produce movies like Splash and Apollo 13, American Gangster, Friday Night Lights, and A Beautiful Mind.
Something else happened during that year of being a legal clerk that was just as important. It was the year I started to actively appreciate the real power of curiosity.
If you grew up in the fifties and sixties, being curious wasn't exactly considered a virtue. In the well-ordered, obedient classrooms of the Eisenhower era, it was more like an irritant. I knew I was curious, of course, but it was a little like wearing glasses. It was something people noticed, but it didn't help me get picked for sports teams, and it didn't help with girls.
That first year at Warner Bros., I realized that curiosity was more than just a quality of my personality. It was my secret weapon. Good for getting picked for the team—it would turn out to be good for becoming captain of the team—and even good for getting the girls.